Valuable plundered pastel picture returned to French Jewish family

PARIS — France has returned a valuable pastel drawing to a Jewish family 56 years after the Nazis plundered the family's art collection during the World War II occupation of France.

Foreign Minister Herve de Charette presented Antoinette Carvailho, heir to the Levi de Benzion family, with "Les Glaneuses" ("The Harvesters"), a drawing by French artist Leon Augustin Lhermitte that was stolen from Carvailho's father's chateau outside Paris.

Carvailho told reporters at a recent ceremony at the French Foreign Ministry that the Germans had robbed her father of some 950 works of art, only a fraction of which she has succeeded in recovering.

The ceremony took place amid controversy over revelations that the city of Paris took ownership of apartments that had been seized from Jews deported to concentration camps or who had fled the Nazi persecution in France.

The Paris city council in December froze the sale of municipal apartments until a probe into their past ownership was completed.

Henri Bulawko, vice president of CRIF, France's umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations, said in a recent interview that "light is being shed" throughout Europe on Jewish property stolen by the Nazis during the war.

"The Jewish community was crushed during the war, so it took a long time to pull its forces together to carry out the proper investigations that should have been done earlier," he said.

The Lhermitte pastel, drawn in 1892, was one of 28 artworks stolen from several families by a German officer stationed in France during the war.

At the end of the war, the officer entrusted them to a Wehrmacht soldier to take back to Germany for safekeeping until his return.

But the officer never returned, and the soldier gave the paintings to a priest in the East German town of Magdeburg. In 1972, the priest turned them over to the Berlin State Museum.

After German reunification, France and Germany began negotiating the artworks' return.

In 1994, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl returned the works to France, where they were put on exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay to be claimed by their owners.

"I immediately recognized the drawing that had belonged to my parents," said Carvailho, who provided French officials with an inventory of her father's collection, which included three works by Lhermitte.

Seven other works stolen by the German officer were recovered by owners who preferred to remain anonymous.

The remaining 20, including paintings by Claude Monet, Eugene Delacroix and Camille Pisarro, have yet to be claimed.